Mental Health ( you must be crazy)


Gerard Oosterman

Gerard Oosterman

The first time I became aware things were not quite right with my older brother Frank was at the age of 8 or so. The teacher noticed Frank’s beautiful handwriting. While the handwriting was in long up and down strokes, with swirly Ws and majestic Ms, the problem was not the beauty of it but the time it took him to perfect this lovely way of writing. No matter how he was praised and how we all stood in awe of his beautiful writing, the friendly urging to keep up with the rest of the class was ignored and he would take all the time in the world to perfect his writing. The rest of the class would long be finished and on the next subject while Frank was still writing his beautiful letters. This wanting to be perfect in whatever he undertook is what plagued him for the rest of his life. He was different.

Earlier on I remember walking Frank home from the Montessori kindergarten during or shortly after the war in bombed out Rotterdam. The Montessori school was most tolerant and considered a good place to start, however they drew the line at kids still doing number two’s in their pants, hence the day time walks home.

Frank on those walks home strolled somewhat strangely and would have his hands sticking out sideways as if he needed some kind of antenna system to guide him. Of course, memories of those times are unreliable and can only be a kind of indication on how I perceived him then so many years ago. It is however a truth as far as I am concerned even though it might have been different. Childhood memories are often vague and I can only state those memories with distortions and exaggerations a distinct possibility.

The next phase of my awareness of Frank was when my father was going upstairs above our living quarters in Rotterdam to do something with a knife. He had been driven beyond the edge of endurance by a woman who kept waking up my younger two brothers and a new baby by noise, day and night. Perhaps my mother had nagged my father to finally take action and what with war, hunger, cold, no food and tobacco but babies and kids, it was not just endurance, but also his sanity that was wavering. It was only one floor up and what the heck, he would show what a real man is capable of. Somehow, mother prevented murder and we soon moved to The Hague. It was a prudent move!

Years later, during 1961, there was a repeat outburst from my father in Australia but this time aimed at the Superintendent of a Sydney mental hospital. Fortunately, by then father had matured enormously and lost his predilection for knives. It was going to be a two handed job around a neck. If only my father had succeeded. He would have saved at least 25 lives by having prevented one hospital from developing its ‘deep sleep’ therapy methods.

Frank had been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and been admitted a few years earlier. The big problem was that if Frank would decide to leave the confines of the hospital, he would come to us home. No matter how my parents pleaded with the hospital doctors to assess Frank if fit enough, they would or could not stop him from leaving. Many times he would walk about in danger of harm to himself or others. At one stage he jumped from the Pyrmont Bridge, survived but has a bad leg.

At home, when he was unwell, the police or ambulance would take him back and while we as kids could scatter, my parents could not and were abused and even held responsible for Frank’s condition and lived a life of trauma that would last till he, thanks to his Dutch Passport, was finally repatriated back to The Netherlands.

He has lived there ever since, in a home where he is well looked after. He has a reasonable social life with other patients, gets taken on holidays, has his own room and 24hrs care, included is good dental and podiatric care. He is made sure to take his medication and he would be driven by nurses to my parents each time they wanted to see their son. He is under the care of Dutch Mental Health Act and they have a responsibility towards him. They certainly would not let him do what he chooses to do like he so often was allowed to do back in sixties in Sydney. His life since his return to The Netherlands in the early seventies has not been at risk anymore, ever.

The situation of mental health here in Australia still seems to be in a time warp, proof of which is the total dereliction of care towards those suffering from a mental disease. The jailed Cornelia Rau in Jordan has again highlighted the baffling case of someone under mental health care being allowed to get so terribly neglected, even allowed to leave the country. There seems to be a contradiction when those under Mental Health Act are deemed to make decisions which puts their lives at risk for which they often have come under the attention of mental health in the first place.

If it was impossible back in 1961 to get my brother Frank’s illness to be managed whereby he would be as free from risk of harm to himself or others as possible, it seems nothing has changed. Cornelia Rau with her detention at Baxter alone should have been enough for the mental health providers to have taken more care and have follow up procedures in place.

Mental health care in Australia comes up with nice brochures in medical centres or public hospitals and lots of 1800 numbers with pre-recorded messages, with perhaps, at best, a couple of weeks in observation resulting in a prescription for Zoloft, but no follow up, no supervised residential care for those that need more than a hurried appraisal and a wave of the hand.

If I was in opposition I would block the $42 billion ’till at least mental health was given the support, finance and the urgency it deserves. Cornelia Rau, like my brother, have or had passports allowing compassionate care and treatment in countries more considerate and advanced.

How many with mental health problems have to suffer, chalk up our suicide rates, end up in jails, or suffer lonely and forgotten deaths in the back alleys of Australia?

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